Sue and Joe Canale's new beach house in Ocean City, N.J., handsomely sided in gray shingles and just steps from the Boardwalk, rises four floors above sea level. The view, they say, is always changing. Sometimes, whitecaps churn. Sometimes, the ocean is a fuzzy pink blanket. Sometimes, lightning flashes above the sea and reflects on the water.
For nearly 20 years, the Canales, a couple from Huntingdon Valley, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, owned another beach house on the property. About two years ago, they decided to tear it down and build another place. They wanted a house they could live in virtually all year. Sue Canale loves to entertain. Joe Canale loves to ride his bike on the Boardwalk.
The Canales have company in Ocean City -- and lots more than in the past. Second-home owners in this tidy family resort, 10 miles south of the Atlantic City casinos, are using their homes deeper into the fall, often through Thanksgiving and Christmas and sometimes well into the winter. A beach house is not just a place to catch a tan anymore.
"It used to be that people closed them up in September -- closed them up and didn't come back until the next year," said Ann Richardson, an agent for ReMax in Ocean City. "The idea of winter at the shore was just not that popular. People would say to me, 'You live here?' They couldn't imagine there was life here after Labor Day."
Now, heated condominiums and beach homes, like the Canales', are being built. Richardson said second-home owners in town, many from Philadelphia and its suburbs, have discovered that Ocean City also has access to the Internet, so it is possible to knock out some work while also enjoying a long weekend.
What is happening in Ocean City is a reflection of what is happening in other second-home destinations, homeowners and real estate agents say. Discouraged by the rising cost (not to mention the hassle) of a winter jaunt to a warm island or a chilly ski slope, second-home owners are returning more often to their own getaways. And they find that they are getting more relaxation for their money.
"Instead of flying, or driving further afield, they can get to us for a tank of gas," said Suzannah Levett Zody, a real estate agent in Nashville, Ind., a small town of shops and galleries about an hour south of Indianapolis. "They're spending two, three, four nights a week here. Why have a vacation home or a second home and fly off for two weeks to Hawaii? They can make more use of a place here, because it's at their fingertips."
Zody, a Nashville native who is also president of the Brown County Chamber of Commerce, remembers when most of the stores and restaurants in town closed in January and February, after foliage season. But in recent years most stores stay open.
That is also true in Ocean City. On a sunny Sunday last month, even though the temperature failed to hit 60 degrees, the Boardwalk near the Ocean City Music Pier was crowded. At midafternoon, there were no booths available at the Ninth Street location of the venerable Mack & Manco pizzeria.
That location of Mack & Manco has been open year round for many years, but Sue Canale has noticed that several other local businesses have extended their hours, or are open on days when they used to be closed. Included are a taco joint, a bakery and Brown's Restaurant, a favorite of the Canale family for its hot doughnuts.
At one time, "you were lucky if the only thing in town that was open was the Wawa," Sue Canale said, referring to a convenience-store chain.
In using their second homes more, some owners are using them differently. Specifically, they like to keep them to themselves.
Several second-home owners said they bought their places with the general idea of renting them out for a little extra money, but soon scuttled that plan.
"You want to get your money's worth out of it, and in order to do that, you want to use it yourself as much as possible," said Marty Breinlinger, a full-time resident of Elmira, N.Y., who owns a cottage on Seneca Lake, near Hector, N.Y. "I would love to go up there every single weekend, if I could."
The Canales were landlords for one year and quickly became tired of cleaning up after renters. Sue Canale said she once found sand in her refrigerator. "Summer landlord is not in my vocabulary," she said.
The Canales simply wanted to own their summer getaway 50 years ago, when her husband, who worked as a dispatcher instructor for Amtrak until he retired in 1987, built a house with his father in Somers Point, N.J., on the other side of Great Egg Harbor from Ocean City.
Eventually, the Canales had the means to build a beach house on a lot at the quiet northern end of Ocean City. The house was contemporary, like many in the neighborhood, but it was not exactly warm and cozy when the weather got cold. In addition, Sue Canale loves to cook, and the house was not ideal for dinner parties.
"She's not happy unless there are 15, 20, 30 people here," said Jane French, a neighbor. (The Canales had 17 people at the house for Thanksgiving.)
So they built their new place -- a five-bedroom duplex with a great room on the third floor that has a sweeping view of the ocean. (They sold the other half to a family who rents their side out six or seven weeks a year.)
It took 16 months to build, but the house has everything they want, including a spacious kitchen and hardwood floors. And it's ringed by wide wooden decks.
(It was on one of those decks where the Canales' 23-year-old son, Joey, proposed to Daria Kane on Oct. 6, 2007. She said yes, and they plan to marry in September.)
Family members want to use their home as much as possible because they have made so many friendships over the last 20 years with their neighbors, including French. The Canales have volunteered for many municipal activities -- the Night in Venice boat parade and the baby parade among them -- and belong to the Ocean City Married Couples Club.
"We have no redeeming social value," Canale said, "but we enjoy each other's company."
Joey Canale has discovered that the fishing is terrific into the end of December, and the nearby beach, virtually deserted after Labor Day, is perfect for surf-casting. "It's quiet and it's peaceful," he said, "and I don't have to travel that much to get here."
He and Kane might go away this winter, but to hear him talk, everything they could want is at the beach house. The deeper into the year they stay, the harder they find it is to leave.
As his mother said, "There's never a time you don't want to see the beach."